THERE’S A haunting image from 2010 that many Indians might have missed. Tucked inside a newspaper was a picture of an elderly farmer in a white kurta, slumped defenceless on his knees against an emerald green field, a red bloodstain spreading in a slow seep across his chest.

He had been shot point blank by the Uttar Pradesh Police as he protested the takeover of his fields for the Taj Expressway. In a sense, it’s unimportant to name and locate him. He could have been one of millions of other poor Indians across the country protesting the juggernauts of development sweeping over their lives. Ports, big dams, chemical plants, steel factories, mines, nuclear installations, thermal projects. Projects that are swallowing them whole: life, health, livelihood, land, water, sky. And yet insisting it is for their greater good.

In a horrific incident on 28 February, two villagers were shot dead in Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh, protesting the construction of a power plant by East Coast Energy Pvt Ltd. But these deaths were not unusual either. They could as well have been a scene from Sompeta, also in Andhra Pradesh, just seven months ago when two farmers there were killed in police fire, protesting a thermal plant by Nagarjuna Constructions Pvt Ltd..

Usually both protests and deaths go unnoticed in the insulated islands of urban India. But over the past two years, chances are some of these names have begun to impinge themselves on middle-class consciousness.

Niyamgiri, POSCO, Jaitapur, Polavaram, Chiria, Singrauli, Raigad, Lavasa, Navi Mumbai, Kalinganagar. With unfailing regularity, names like these now burst like mini-explosions on prime-time television and front page newsprint. Chances are people have at least begun to ask, what’s going on?

In a sense, the man at the heart of this, the man most responsible for finally leveraging environmental issues — in their broadest sense of livelihood struggles, public health and conservation — onto India’s political agenda is Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh.

For decades, grassroot movements have fought valiant battles on the ground. Staving off catastrophic change; demanding more complex ideas of growth. Now finally, they have an ally in the Establishment. Someone who can turn up the volume on their concerns. Someone who can break through the sound-proof corridors of Delhi.

Bloody conflict A farmer shot by police during a protest against a thermal power plant in Sompeta, Andhra Pradesh
Photo : Basheer

But in a curious twist, Jairam himself has become a metaphor for the crisis-laden charge he helms. With every mega project he flags for environmental concerns, he becomes as beleaguered as the constituency he represents. His position within government shrinks. The media discourse around him grows shriller. It is probably no coincidence that Jairam was not made a minister of Cabinet rank: environment was designed to be a junior concern to big business. It was meant to be just the powdered nose on the “growth” story.

But if the mandate was just to have a goodwill ambassador, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had been landed with the wrong man. Jairam is too honest and intelligent a man not to “apply his own mind” to any job entrusted to him. Inevitably, with every passing day, he has grown into his job and made all its underlying contradictions and dilemmas visible. The mighty but unequal battle between big business and ordinary people. The contesting visions of his own government: with Manmohan Singh’s World Bank-trained vision on one side and Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s more inclusive and humane vision on the other.

Today, the environment ministry is perhaps the most crucial ministry in the country: a myriad civilisational questions hover at its door seeking answers. Should India’s natural resources be handed over indiscriminately to corporates in the name of development? Are the differences between growth and environmental concerns really irreconcilable? It’s to Jairam’s credit that he’s turned it into the hot zone it has become.

For 10 years, under successive DMK ministers, the ministry had been nothing but an “ATM machine” filling the coffers of minister and party. Corporates felt they just had to “manage” it; the middle-class disregarded it; the poor despaired of it. Jairam changed all that.

He intuited that the environment ministry was at the centre of every big issue of our time: big national aspirations, big money, big promises. But he also understood the ministry was a threshold: it held the keys to our futures and the livelihoods of millions of poor Indians. He understood he was not there just to be an honest, capable man: he was there to be a custodian. Every project he was judging was worth thousands and thousands of crores. Every decision he was making impacted thousands of lives. Every mistake he made would deplete India. Every correct signature he signed would protect it.

None of this has been easy. Jairam sits at the centre of the most staggering and complex churn. Every move he makes puts a spoke into the most powerful vested interests. “India must be the only country in the world where a minister hits the headlines regularly just for upholding the law,” he says laughingly. But the wit is just a curtain for a fraught situation.

With every mega project Jairam flags for green concerns, he becomes as beleaguered as the constituency he represents

Over the past 20 months, Jairam has grown more shackled with every passing day. He’s almost lost his job thrice and has had run-ins with almost all his colleagues: Ministers for surface transport, shipping, coal, power, steel, aviation, agriculture, water and science. Queues of detractors line up routinely at the prime minister’s door asking for his ouster. In the last cabinet reshuffle, in fact, he was a “goner”, says a Congress source, had Sonia not intervened. Despite this, he may still lose his job by May.

The slim thread Jairam hangs on as environment minister then is the story of the slim thread 80 percent of India hangs on as well. His battles are the manifestation of the angry tensions between growth and environment. He is the wedge in the door. If he goes, the narrative of the desperate man in the emerald field will slide off our vision again. That would be a dangerous turning point for India. The worst thing the media and middle-class Indians can do at this point is to castigate Jairam for not delivering black and white answers.

The truth is there are no easy answers. The truth is it has never been more crucial to recast the shrill “growth” versus “environment” debate in saner terms; never been more urgent for privileged Indians to engage with it. Reading the highvoltage story of Jairam Ramesh and his tenure in the environment ministry, therefore, is not a spectator sport: it involves us all. In a sense, it is the precarious story of our own futures.

THE TALK is it was not the prime minister but Sonia who picked Jairam for the environment ministry. She obviously picked wisely. Self-confessedly, he was a “surprise pick”. There was nothing in his background to suggest he could become the speaking tree for the myriad silent battles being fought in the country. Jairam, in fact, had grown up staunchly on the other side of the divide. He had a degree in mechanical engineering from IIT Bombay and degrees in management and technology policy from Heinz College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology respectively. After a short stint at the World Bank, he was — ironically — hand-picked by Manmohan Singh to be part of the team that opened up the Indian economy. (That’s a story Jairam repeats often. “I’m not at loggerheads with the prime minister,” he asserts emphatically. “We’ve fought many battles together over the past 25 years, battles for foreign investment, de-licensing and economic reform.”)

Apart from this, Jairam worked severally as minister of state for commerce, industry and power. He was always very much the “hard issues” guy. Barring being a member of the Sonia Gandhi-headed National Advisory Council in the first UPA government, there was nothing in his career that linked Jairam to “people’s concerns”.

It’s probably for precisely these reasons that Sonia picked him for the environment ministry. Putting a growth hawk on the green seat was meant to send a powerful political message: the growth story needed to transform itself and internalise green values. Jairam was the perfect choice to set this in motion: he epitomised both the tense polarities of the debate and its potential for reconciliation. And reinvention.

‘I don’t think India fully understands the significance of the fact that forest areas, mineral-rich areas, the tribal areas and Naxalprone areas of our country overlap…’
Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

Jairam still claims he is a “growth-wallah” but it’s clear he’s been irrevocably changed by his months at the ministry. Exposure to stimuli cannot but impact someone of intelligence. “I have evolved,” he concedes, sitting in the misleading serenity of his glass-paned office in Paryavaran Bhawan. “Twenty years ago I was a gung ho growth-wallah. Today I’m just a growth-wallah: I’m no longer gung ho. I’ve realised if it is to be a choice between 9 percent growth and negative impact on environment and livelihood security and 7 percent growth with ecological security — it’s much wiser to opt for the latter. Twenty years ago I may have chosen the former. Today I would choose the latter.”

That’s a big admission. The much-needed tempering has set in. Sonia’s gamble has paid off. But it’s not been a smooth ride for Jairam to articulate these transformations. Or even to acquit his duty. His report card at the environment ministry, in fact, is a strangely chequered one.

Some of the difficulty lies in the nature of the beast. Some of it lies in the cleft mandate he was handed on 28 May 2009. When Jairam asked the prime minister, “Sir, why me?” the prime minister replied: “The ministry has acquired a bad reputation for corruption and rent-seeking. I want you to clean up the system but I don’t want environment to be a hurdle to growth. You understand the compulsions of growth better than most.”

Sonia, however, had another, simpler, message altogether. Asked for her vision for him, she said, “Acquit the mandate the environment ministry was set up for. Protect India’s natural resources. Safeguard people’s livelihoods.”

Jairam is at the centre of a most staggering and complex churn. His every move puts a spoke into the powerful vested interests

Jairam is deeply rooted in Hindu culture. This gifts him with a redeeming sense of ambiguity. (“The difference between me and many of my colleagues in the growth constituency is that I have many doubts. I am not full of certainties. I find many of my colleagues are very certain that their path is the only path.”) He is also a student of Buddhism. Both these spiritual persuasions, in a sense, arm him with the stamina for a difficult situation. Music is his third refuge.

But still, it can’t be easy being the living embodiment of cleft questions: What is real growth? What is real development? What is the ideal middle-path? But let those arguments come later. Consider just the surface tensions first.

Bleak future A young labourer at the infamous Jharia coal mines
Photo : Greenpeace/Peter Caton

JAIRAM’S EARLY days at the ministry had brought a kind of euphoria into the environment and livelihood rights movement. Confronted with the debris of the ministry, he had immersed himself in his first few days in office in Indira Gandhi’s environment vision — the original architect of the ministry. He emerged with some talismans: he would ensure his ministry upheld the laws of the land; he would be transparent and democratic; and he would try and articulate the “middle-path”.

Jairam’s decision on Bt Brinjal — one of his earliest and most highly-contested interventions — carried the blueprint of all of these resolutions. In an unprecedented move, he held seven public consultations across seven cities. Then he withdrew into his office, wrote a wonderfully lucid document and uploaded it on the ministry website: a “speaking order” explaining why he had put a moratorium until further safeguards were in place.

With just these processes, Jairam has brought a sort of incalculable value and hope to the ministry. In fact, there are things history will thank him for without stint. There is the increased visibility and consciousness about environmental issues he has catalysed. There’s the unblemished honesty. There’s the transparency. (Jairam has transformed the environment ministry website into a founding brick for Indian democracy: every letter and decision by the ministry is put up on the website for public scrutiny. As environmentalist Claude Alvares of the Goa Foundation, both friend and adversary, says, “This has never been done before. Jairam has brought in an unparalleled openness. He is not willing to conceal anything.”)

And there are the public consultations and speaking orders. (Renowned economist and former UN Under-Secretary- General for Economic and Social Affairs, Nitin Desai, says, “One cannot underestimate the power of this. With every speaking order, he is building a kind of environmental jurisprudence. Over time there will be precedents that cover every kind of situation.”)

Apart from this, Jairam has been trying to strike other crucial blows for the cause of environment and people’s livelihoods. All of it is daunting. The problems and inefficacies of the ministry stretch unendingly like a nightmare continent. Environmental governance in India, for instance, is a scandal. EIAs (environment impact assessments) for projects are supposed to be the most crucial tool to safeguard citizens from the dangers of unplanned industrialisation.

Jairam has transformed the environment ministry’s website: every decision is put online for public scrutiny

But EIAs in India are a scamsters’ delight. Not only are they done by project proponents themselves, the committees authorised to appraise them often just fudge their way through it as well. (This is such a shocking story, it is worthy of a cover in itself. Read Environment Clearance Report, TEHELKA, 31 January 2009.)

Jairam has tried hard to dismantle some of this corrupt system and set up a new environment assessment and monitoring body (NEAMA) and fast-track environmental courts called National Green Tribunals. He’s also been pushing for cumulative impact assessments and has tried to map the country’s industrial zones under CEPI (comprehensive environment pollution index).

It is a measure of the incredibly complex and vast task before him that many of these initiatives have been flawed both in conception and execution. “The irony is,” says lawyer Ritwik Dutta, once a Jairam admirer now a sharp critic, “in some ways never have people been so powerless on environmental issues than they are today. Jairam needs to be retrained.”

That could well be true, but that is material for a different kind of story. For now, it’s key to draw attention to the fact that a lot of all this may seem very far removed from the concerns of middle-class Indians and the privileged elite. But nothing could be further from the truth. Every blow Jairam strikes in favour of the poor, he also strikes in favour of us.

We are inextricably linked with the dead farmer in the emerald green field. Every high-velocity water-tap we open, every light we switch on, every extra hour of air-conditioning we carelessly run, every drop of petrol we waste, snakes back to the battles being fought with blood and bullet on the ground. It has never been more imperative that we understand that.

Centre for Science and Environment director general Sunita Narain calls these struggles the “environmentalism of the poor”, emphasising that these are not ideological luxuries that can be set aside. For the poor, they are battles for the right to live.

But it would be a mistake for middle-class Indians to discard these issues as just chivalric concerns for the poor, best left to activists. As Navroze Dubash, senior fellow at Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research, points out, it is time the Indian elite realised that the health of growth story actually overlaps with some of the demands of the poor: “In the long run, you cannot destroy the very resource base on which growth rests,” he says.

(Consider just one statistic put out by Vikram Singh Mehta, chairman of Shell India, and the shocking truth of this will hit home: it takes 9,200 litres of water to produce one litre of diesel. How can we imagine we are not connected with environment struggles?)

Many of Jairam’s recent decisions show that the conventional growth lobby has started to squeeze him into a tight corner

Raghuram Rajan — former IMF economist and now adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — has himself said that the “wealth creation by stealth”, the capture of national resources by oligarchs has begun to put “Indian democracy at risk.”

Clearly then, the muting of Jairam — and by extension, the muting of all the concerns he is meant to amplify in the corridors of power — should be of prime concern to every Indian.

ON A cold January morning, Jairam had sat outside his house in Lutyens Delhi — small by Lutyens’ standards — and spoken meditatively and at length about the environment ministry’s mandate: his vision for it; his mantra of trade-offs and middle-paths.

“Please understand I am not a doctrinaire environmentalist,” he had said, “I am only coming at this from the point that there are serious issues here that need addressing. I’m not as concerned about environmental impacts of growth because technology can be brought in to mitigate some of that. What I’m really concerned about is the indiscriminate diversion of forest land and depletion of natural resources. This is intrinsically tied up with people’s livelihoods.”

“Unfortunately,” he added, “economic growth was meant to liberate and broaden consciousness. Instead, I find, a new form of social Darwinism is coming into force. There is actually social retrogression. I would say the poor are more secular than the rich in India.” (See tehelka.com for full interview)

“Can you give me one example when you have been forced to be really pragmatic in your decisions,” I asked. “Watch me tomorrow,” he replied.

On 31 January, much of Jairam’s early impetus in the environment ministry was abruptly and publicly clipped. For months, there had been a high-visibility face-off between him, the steel minister and the PMO over his revoking environmental clearances to South Korean steel giant POSCO’s mega project in Odisha.

Jairam had just halted Vedanta’s project in Niyamgiri a few months earlier. It was difficult for him to step back on POSCO without looking ad hoc. But the guess is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had staked himself personally on it as a prestige issue. So on 31 January, Jairam gave POSCO conditional clearance — with 60 caveats thrown in, some of it no more than window-dressing. It’s as much as he could do.

Like the story of the EIAs, the story of POSCO — its false claims and illegalities — is material for another story. (Read Whose Steel? Who’s Stealing? TEHELKA, 11 December 2010). But Jairam is deeply uncomfortable with any suggestion that he and the prime minister were ever on a collision course on this. “We achieved 85 percent of what we wanted,” he says.

Stripped bare A tribal boy from the Sakata resettlement village in Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills
Photo : Jason Taylor

But the POSCO decision has been followed by a series of other backdowns. Jairam cleared Naveen Jindal’s steel plant in Odisha; he took 14 wrecked industrial zones out of the CEPI (probably against his better judgement); he opened the Chiria mines in Saranda, Jharkhand — some of India’s finest sal forest — to facilitate a SAIL IPO. And he found a compromise formula for the Lavasa project in Pune.

Now, he has been tasked by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to find a way out of the latest flashpoint — the “go” and “no-go” coal areas — by 15 March.

It is no one’s case that every industrial project should be cancelled by the environment ministry. Only that they be evaluated closely for costs and benefits. But many of Jairam’s recent decisions show that the conventional growth lobby has started to close in on him, squeezing him into an ever tighter corner. Jairam gamely takes responsibility for all these decisions saying, “I am the minister, I am meant to take tough calls.” And Ritwik says, “It’s not enough to say Jairam is a nice guy under tremendous pressure.”

At Jharia, lung and skin diseases are relationships more binding than family ties. And a black dust coats everyone even in their sleep. At Singrauli, the largest hub of electricity generation in India, which houses projects by Anil Ambani, Aditya Birla, Essar, Hindalco, Dainik Bhaskar Group and NTPC, toxic fly-ash lies in open pits five feet deep; children are habitually born with respiratory diseases and low IQ; and human development indices are among the lowest in the world. Far from getting dignified jobs, people displaced five times over by these projects sit on the roadside selling stone for Rs. 80 a day.

If these cameos are not enough, the ongoing flashpoint between Jairam Ramesh and his Cabinet colleagues over “go” and “no-go” coal mining areas is another telling example of the false pretexts under which the growth story is habitually pushed.

Jairam’s position in the debate, so far, seems a perfectly reasonable one: he has mapped India’s forest cover and India’s coal reserves. Where the coal lies under richly dense forests, he has said no mining leases should be handed out.

They both may be right. But it is critically important to look at the shape of that pressure and start to free everyone from its fallacious and vice-like grip.

THE REASON why the current “growth” versus “environment” debate is so emotive and polarised is that the growth lobby has disguised its profiteering and stitched itself into a sort of cloak of “national interest”. It claims its mega projects must be pushed through with maximum concession and least scrutiny because they are necessary to pull Indians out of poverty. It claims such projects bring development, employment opportunities, enhance India’s GDP growth and bridge its energy and power deficits. It claims corporations must be granted disproportionate access to India’s national heritage — its rivers, forests, seas, air, land and minerals — because they are using it in grave public interest.

Seen through this prism, any opposition to these projects — any demand for accountability — can’t help but seem petulant and obstructionist. Seen through this prism, environment and livelihood movements can only seem adversarial. The whinings of cussed people determined to slow India down.

But look closer and everything is revealed to be half-truths if not brazen lies. Far from being a nation- building exercise, the growth project, as it is currently constructed, is “like jhum cultivation: you use, burn and move on”, as energy expert Partho Mukhopadhaya puts it.

Just a whistle-stop visit to the coalfields of Jharia in Jharkhand — with its perpetual fires, acrid air and five lakh displaced people — or the energy capital of Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh would demonstrate this.

For all the angry cacophony around him, Jairam has cleared 535 of the 764 projects unconditionally, and axed only 6

At Jharia, lung and skin diseases are relationships more binding than family ties. And a black dust coats everyone even in their sleep. At Singrauli, the largest hub of electricity generation in India, which houses projects by Anil Ambani, Aditya Birla, Essar, Hindalco, Dainik Bhaskar Group and NTPC, toxic fly-ash lies in open pits five feet deep; children are habitually born with respiratory diseases and low IQ; and human development indices are among the lowest in the world. Far from getting dignified jobs, people displaced five times over by these projects sit on the roadside selling stone for Rs. 80 a day.

If these cameos are not enough, the ongoing flashpoint between Jairam Ramesh and his Cabinet colleagues over “go” and “no-go” coal mining areas is another telling example of the false pretexts under which the growth story is habitually pushed.

Jairam’s position in the debate, so far, seems a perfectly reasonable one: he has mapped India’s forest cover and India’s coal reserves. Where the coal lies under richly dense forests, he has said no mining leases should be handed out.

Dam and debate Construction in full swing at the Subansiri Hydro-electric Project
Photo: UB Photos

Judging by the shrill chorus that has greeted this move, you would imagine Jairam had ordered India back to an era of oil-lamps. The power minister declared he could not meet his power generation targets. The steel minister said 22 steel companies would now lie fallow. And the coal minister said this move would put 660 million tonnes of coal out of India’s reach every year. The home minister warned Jairam he was poised to trip India’s 9 percent “growth”.

The media, of course, immediately jumped into the fray denouncing Jairam as an “enviro-fundamentalist” always erecting “green hurdles”. What everyone missed in the noise was a startling statistic Jairam threw up: Coal India — the public sector giant the coal minister was batting for — already had 1.5 lakh hectares of coal-bearing areas at its disposal.

Yet it was only utilising 25 percent of this coal. So why did Coal India need more forest lands to be opened up when even the existing areas were not being worked on?

This is a classic case of how the “growth” versus “environment” debate has come to be so falsely articulated. If India is not able to meet its energy needs, it’s not because the environment movement is stopping it from chopping its last tree and picking out its last piece of coal. At least partly, it’s because existing power plants are functioning at about 40 percent efficiency while the global norm is about 80 percent. Hydel power projects are functioning at about 30 percent efficiency; thermal plants at about 50-60 percent. In addition to this, almost 40 percent of the already minimally- efficient power being generated is lost in transmission.

Like food, electricity is also rotting unused in many locations because of bad distribution. Why should Indians — rich or poor — lose the Ganga or the Tadoba tiger reserve, to name only two precious national treasures, just because the energy sector, which includes both corporates and government, can’t get their act together?

Quite apart from this, there are other ways power minister Sushil Kumar Shinde could get around his problems and meet his power targets. There are some rudimentary technical fixes waiting to be done: the correct fuel mixes; differentiating between peak-load and base-load capacities and pricing.

No shelter Anti-dam activist Akhil Gogoi makes a point to Jairam during the latter’s visit to Assam
Photo : UB Photos

“The scandal is,” says Pratap Bhanu Mehta, director, Centre for Policy Research, “very few people in government are even talking about this. We are all pro-growth. We are just not pro-lazy growth. The whole thing has just become about grabbing the lowest hanging fruit available.”

For many middle-class Indians, it will probably come as a surprise that it’s inefficiency, not growth per se, that is at odds with the environment and livelihood rights movement. But this is a pattern that repeats itself endlessly. Indian governments of every political hue are more comfortable displacing millions of its own people than in investing in long-term and less disruptive solutions. They would rather spend Rs. 2,000 on building a dam and channelling water to distant cities than fixing leaky pipes locally at Rs.50 crore. Though the end goal could be met as easily by the latter. Again they would rather drain the Ganga dry in the name of development than invest in recycling water and developing a zero-waste water policy.

On employment too, Claude Alvares has a staggering statistic. According to NCAER figures, the formal economy in India employs only 28 million people today. Back in 1950, it was 25 million. That’s just a three million increase in jobs in the formal sector over 60 years. At an average, each of those jobs has been generated at an investment cost of Rs.1 crore. This means more than 80 percent of India is employed in the non-formal sector and is looking after themselves, outside the supposedly golden halo of the growth story.

Why should this majority percent be forced to give up their resources to service the minority? As Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, “If one catalogued all the abandoned mines in India and audited the reforestation norms, the debate on forests versus development would probably be very different.”

‘With every project I flag up, I’m trying to trigger enough of a crisis so the issues around it get discussed,’ says Jairam

The reassuring thing is it’s no longer only rights groups who are articulating these things. Economist Nitin Desai is scathing about the pretences the current growth story masquerades under. “Where have big projects ever generated jobs?” he says, “Show me a single case where that has happened. The problem is the growth lobby has disproportionate influence in government. Why are all these projects being rushed through? Do you think people will really get annoyed if some mega project is delayed? There’s no political constituency for it. The only people who get miffed are corporate honchos and their acolytes in the media. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi understand this. But the Indian bureaucracy and Planning Commission have no exposure to ground realities.

There is a dangerous mix of ‘short-termism’ and a genuine lack of understanding in government about all this.”

Former power secretary R Vasudevan has similar things to say. “The GDP is the narrowest possible measure of growth. We cannot worship growth just as a percentage,” he says. “We have to ask ourselves, is all this really enabling us? The problem is both Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia have had only World Bank exposure. They have never worked on the field so they do not understand ground realities.”

Food for thought Ramesh interacts with activists opposed to Bt Brinjal in Ahmedabad
Photo : Indian Express Archive

FOR ALL the angry cacophony around him, interestingly, Jairam Ramesh has actually had a disappointing 95 percent clearance rate for development projects since he came to office. Out of 764 projects put up to his ministry, he cleared 535 unconditionally; flagged a few for review and stopped only six.

The fact that even such miniscule pushback elicited such high volume chagrin shows how dangerously pampered the investment climate in India has become. As Jairam says, “The first generation of economic reforms unleashed by Dr Manmohan Singh in 1991 removed government from business but we must now remove business from government. The oligarchs have had a free run of the environment ministry for too long. All this noise is just proof that these oligarchs now feel it’s not a free ride for them anymore.”

The key now though is not to set up new irreconcilable oppositions but recast the debate in finer balance.

The first step in doing that is to recognise — and restore — Nature to its incalculable value. Pavan Sukhdev, senior banker and special adviser to the United Nations Environment Programme’s Green Economy Initiative, does that in forceful ways. “The economic invisibility of nature has been a problem. This had skewed the debate. It’s critical for this to be rectified,” he says.

The muting of all concerns Jairam is meant to amplify in the corridors of power should be of prime concern to every Indian

He reels out fascinating statistics in support of this: 450 million people in India live off subsistence agriculture, wetlands and forests. Nature provides them 90 percent of their income. How was industry going to provide all these people jobs if they are driven off their land? “Those who think they have a purely industrial solution to India’s poverty are living in cuckoo-land,” he says. “What are we going to do, make them Ferrari makers? What is the economic model that is going to generate alternative employment for 450 million people?”

The answer to these seemingly imponderable questions lies in old truisms. For decades, Nature had been reduced to something that supposedly had no value unless it was exploited. Those who spoke up for its conservation — grassroot workers, farmers, fisherfolk, tribals — were typecast as woolly romantics, out of step with time.

Now, men like Jairam Ramesh and Pavan Sukhdev from the other side of the divide, are starting to speak the same language. The answers to modernity and its increased demands is not to accelerate GDP rates to a point where the planet will implode; the answer is to focus on creating a parallel green economy, alongside industry.

Pitched battle Farmers clash with the police during a protest against a power plant in Srikakulam
Photo: Basheer

According to Sukhdev, there are new business avenues worth $200 billion for those who want to invest in renewables and green efficiency innovations. For the rest, communities have to be encouraged to create jobs at local levels.

Supported by the environment ministry, Sukhdev recently launched India TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) — a project designed to audit and place a value on forests and rivers and marine ecosystems. The first step towards creating a green GDP, which would help nature take its rightful place at the high-table of global economic conversations.

But before that takes off, Alvares has a commonsense intervention to make. “Industry has to realise all economic activity takes place within an environmental framework. Industry, in fact, works on natural subsidies: it gets free gigawatts of rainfall for both its agricultural and industrial activity. If industry destroys Nature, what will it replace the monsoon with?”

The first step to correcting the growth versus environment debate, he says, is for everyone to recognise economy is only a subset of ecology. So everyone better invest in doing things within proportion and in renewable ways.

WHEN JAIRAM took office on 28 May 2009, there was a minefield of things waiting for the environment ministry’s attention. In racing to them, there may be dozens of things he hasn’t decoded perfectly. He may have made some imperfect innovations and some legally patchy decisions; he may have built up some inconsistencies and overlooked some priorities.

Even his well-wishers say he is in danger of turning the ministry into a personality cult rather than focussing on building an institution that can outlast him and take forward his vision. Crucially too, the caveats in his speaking orders — the elaborate conditional clearances — may look like strong blows for environment and democracy but there’s no infrastructure to monitor them.

Left out A displaced villager points to his land acquired for the proposed Jaitapur nuclear power plant
Photo :Tushar Mane

But Jairam is unfazed by the criticism. “I will be the first to admit there is only so far I can go and no more,” he says. “I am part of a system; I am answerable to the Cabinet. I may not be getting everything I want but with every project I flag up, I’m trying to trigger enough of a crisis so the issues around it at least get discussed. I want to create a new consciousness.”

Jairam may be in office only two months more. Or he may last his term. A lot is riding on the formula he comes up with on 15 March. For too long, the sharp “growth” versus “environment” debate has taken lives and land. If the story of just the 20 months he’s been around gets the Indian middle-class and media a little less insulated and a little more engaged, Jairam would have done enough.

The sobering thought is, if he attempted to do more, he would not be around.

Also Read: ‘We must wake up to the mining-politician nexus in our country which is wreaking havoc in our politics’